Donogh O’Malley: Death of a Statesman 50 years ago this week

Donogh O'Malley (1968)

Fifty years ago this week a light went out on 1960s Ireland with the death of the pioneering and flamboyant Minister for Education, Donogh O’Malley, aged just 47. The Limerick East TD died of a heart attack soon after addressing rallies in Sixmilebridge and Cratloe in the by-election that would see Sylvie Barrett elected to Dáil Éireann, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.

Death of a Statesman

“He was, in effect, the John F Kennedy of Ireland, for he had the same instinctive style about anything he did. Indeed, everything about O’Malley had style.”
Seamus Brady, The Irish Press

IT was a state occasion in every sense, one that crossed party lines and allegiances way beyond the floors of the Oireachtas and somehow touched the county as a whole, regardless of peoples’ political affiliation, if any.
It’s not always what happens after the death of a statesman occurs, but the death of Donogh O’Malley at the age of just 47 did just that — it touched many different chords, from the body politic of the Fianna Fáil party he had served in Dáil Éireann for 14 years to wider Leinster House; from his constituents in Limerick, but most of all from the wider constituency of the country at large that benefitted from his largesse as a government minister in a hurry to get things done.
“I was an old friend of the Minister,” lamented Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave. “We were close professional friends, in spite of political differences,” Mr Cosgrave continued.
“We are all deeply shocked,” said Labour Party leader Brendan Corish. “One could not but applaud and admire the uninhibited way in which he tackled the longstanding problems of education,” he added.
Meanwhile, former Taoiseach Sean Lemass, who had promoted O’Malley to Cabinet in 1965, said his shocking passing was “an irreparable loss to the country, because far too few of his qualities are being attracted into public life”, while he also hailed the Limerick man as having “an extraordinarily keen intelligence and dynamic energy” and being “completely dedicated to Irish politics”.
“Those of us who were privileged to know him will miss his colourful personality….and his biting words,” said The Limerick Leader editor Tom Tobin in a front page tribute.
“We had our differences and they were many,” continued Tobin, himself another swashbuckling man about town. “We would separate following a meeting or discussion with the sting of hot words still burning, but not for long. There was always a phone call an hour or two later, often in the late hours of the night, just for a chat or to find out what was new. The controversies were forgotten.
“Times have changed in Limerick, they can never be the same again,” went the opening line of Tobin’s editorial.
“The tragic death of Donogh O’Malley, Minister for Education, has robbed out city of one of its most colourful personalities and the country of one of its greatest leaders.
“Limerick can never be the same again. Times have changed,” went the last line of Tobin’s editorial.
And, it was Limerick’s farewell to O’Malley, 50 years ago this Tuesday that captured this sense of change, loss and grief.
“With the pomp, splendour and dignity befitting a royal pice of Thomond, the people of Limerick laid Donogh O’Malley, their neighbour and statesman to rest,” wrote Desmond Maguire in The Irish Press.
“And not only his native city mourned the passing of a dynamic young Minister for Education; the nation, represented by the President, Mr Eamon de Valera and the Taoiseach Mr Jack Lynch, joined in the massive tribute to one of the most colourful and best liked personalities of public life.”
The night before, the coffin, draped in the Tricolour, bearing Donogh O’Malley’s remains was borne shoulder high by Jack Lynch and seven of his government ministers — behind Lynch were Minister for Agriculture Neil Blaney, Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan and Minister for Finance Charles Haughey, while on the other side were the Minister for Labour Paddy Hillery, Minister for Local Government Kevin Boland, Minister for Health Sean Flanagan and Minister for Social Welfare Joseph Brennan — from St John’s Hospital to nearby Limerick Cathedral.
It was a political farewell on the grandest scale, a State funeral with all flags hanging at half mast from State buildings around the country, but it was more about the children than the politicians as Desmond Maguire noted in his Irish Press report.
“Over 30,000 people line the mile-long route form the 150-year-old cathedral to the family burial plot at Mount St Lawrence, among them the city’s children who turned out in force to add their tribute to the man who did so much for them.
“Pupils from the Catholic and Protestant schools dressed in their multi-coloured uniforms were positioned at various points along the route and recited prayers as the cortege wound slowly through the city’s streets to the strains of the Dead March played by the band of the Southern Command.
“The route from the cathedral to the cemetery was draped in black and the city mourned. Blinds were drawn and flags flew at half mast. In many way it was a children’s tribute — an outward token of their appreciation for the Minister who wore himself out in his efforts to make a reality of the ideal of the 1916 Proclamation that all the children of the nation be cherished equally”.
It was the message O’Malley preached to the very end, an end that came while he took to the campaign trail in south east Clare on the morning of Sunday, 10 March, 1968.

IT was like any other Sunday in election time — for candidates and supporters its was about going from mass to mass and from speech to speech to get their message across.
Fianna Fáil were in confident mood and were closing in on another Dáil seat in the battle to fill the vacancy caused by the death the previous November of sitting Fine Gael of 16 years, Bill Murphy, from Ennistymon.
Thirty-nine-year-old Clarecastle man Sylvie Barrett became the Fianna Fáil candidate after an infamous selection convention in the Queen’s Hotel in Ennis that became known as ‘The Night of the Long Count’ when he defeated Jack Daly from Ennis by 169 to 115.
That convention took place on 9 February, with O’Malley joining the renowned Fianna Fáil election machine at work in the county just four days out from polling day of 14 March.
“It made sense for O’Malley to deliver keynote addresses in Clare before polling day,” recalled Cllr Sean Hillery in an interview with The Clare Champion in 1998, “because was he such a dynamic man and had an aura about him, a minister who had carried on the great work of Paddy (Hillery) in education and delivered on a promise of providing free education to every child in the country,” added the now deceased former Mayor of Clare.
O’Malley’s reputation had been cemented just months after succeeding Hillery in the education portfolio in July 1966, when his impatience to get things done saw him announce his free education plans to a group of journalists at an NUJ seminar in Dun Laoghaire.
“Every year some 17,000 of our children finishing their primary school course do not receive any further education,” O’Malley told the gathering. “This means that almost one in three of our future citizens are cut off at this stage from the opportunities of learning a skill, and denied the benefits of cultural development that go with further education.
“This is a dark stain on our national conscience,” he continued. “I believe that this is a situation which must be tackled with all speed and determination. And I am glad to be able to announce tonight that I am drawing up a scheme under which, in future, no boy or girl in this State will be deprived of full educational opportunity — from primary to university level — by reason of the fact that the parents cannot afford to pay for it.
“I intend, also, to make provision whereby no pupil will, for lack of means, be prevented from continuing his or her education up to the end of the Leaving Certificate course.
“I propose that assistance towards the cost of books and accessories will be given, through the period of his or her course, to the student on whom it would be a hardship to meet all such costs,” he added.
“That’s the way O’Malley was,” remembered Hillery, “because his impulse was that this was the right thing to do so he went with it. And there was more of it that morning when he came to help Sylvie Barrett’s campaign.
“At one of the meetings he spoke of how Fianna Fáil could deliver and mentioned that he had once spent £1m in a minute. A bank had burst on the Shannon in the middle of the night and after a phone call he immediately sanctioned work costing £1m. The supporters loved this.”
For O’Malley, the day began shortly after 8am when he made the short journey from his North Circular Road home in Limerick to Sixmilebridge. With him were his driver, Garda Con Houlihan, Limerick councillor JP (Rory) Liddy and another Fianna Fáil activist Michael Connelly.
“He was a little subdued as we made the journey,” recalled Cllr Liddy, “but when we were picking up Michael Coffey [secretary of Cratloe Fianna Fáil cumann] as a joke he told the driver to drive past him as if to leave him behind, before he reversed back to pick him up. Then he had great banter with Mr Coffey on the short journey to Sixmilebridge,” he added.
There was a crowd of about 300 in Sixmilebridge for meeting after 8.30am mass. “He was his old self,” remembered Sean Hillery, who was chairman of the Sixmilebridge Fianna Fáil cumann, “and was in the best of spirits, although he had looked a little pale.
“I’ll never forget that after he gave his speech he jumped off the platform and was asked did he want a cup of tea. He said ‘not at all’, as because as he had not got Mass, he would drop into the ‘Little Church’ in Cratloe for 9.30am mass before addressing his second meeting outside.
“After Mass he got a fantastic reception from about 500 people, which is practically the population of the entire village, and it was not long before he had them spellbound with his usual charm and style.
“His main theme was the free education scheme, but he also ranged over health, social services and full-scale employment. He had dealt with some hecklers in his own inimitable way and told them Fianna Fail were going to make no golden promises, but that they were there to advance the country as best they knew how and would deliver,” he added.
“In 1966 when I brought forward the post-primary education scheme,” began Minister O’Malley, “people asked, ‘Where is O’Malley going to get the money? Where is O’Malley going to get het buses? Where is O’Malley going to get the schools and where is he going to get the teachers?
“That was the outcry, but we did not hear it today. The scheme had been implemented, The opposition was still talking about a ‘Just Society’ and free post-primary education and did to appear to see that free post-primary education came into operation in September 1967.
“It was said the more affluent should be asked to pay something. If this was allowed to happen there would have been class distinction again. I could not see seven children in the front desk and two of them saying they were paying the others were not. I could not see the bus conductor saying ‘five of you are free, but the other two must pay’. This would not do,” he added.
“People said afterwards that he seemed to be out of breath when he was making that speech,” recalled Sean Hillery. “I didn’t notice that because I was on the platform with him. But when he got off the platform he wasn’t feeling well. He asked me where we were going next and when I told him it was to the Wells Church three miles away, he said, ‘you go on and start talking and I will follow you.
“You know when you have that gut feeling that there is something radically wrong — that’s how I felt. I was told that the Minister had not followed me, so I gave a very short speech and went straight back to towards Sixmilebridge. Then I was told that he had a seizure in his car just after I had left for the Wells Church,” he added.
Michael Breen from Similebridge, was near Minister O’Malley when he had the seizure. “He was very pale as he was getting into his car and he sort of collapsed into the back seat. We thought he had a heartache and asked him if he wanted a glass of water. 
“He gave us the impression that he wanted to get sick, so we brought him into Mrs Aida Power’s house across the road from the church and laid him on a couch. When the doctor came [Dr Bernard Holohan from Kilkishen] it looked for a while that he was pulling through as he began to joke. But then he began to clutch his stomach and writhe in pain.”
Dr Holohan called an ambulance from Limerick, and at 11.45 accompanied Minister O’Malley to St. John’s Hospital, along with his lifelong friend, Cllr JP Liddy and Michael Coffey.
His last words to the people of Sixmilebridge before he was brought away in the ambulance were: “It’s all for a good cause. I’ll see you soon.”
In St John’s Hospital he was treated by Dr Robert Holmes and Dr George Cantillon, but lost his battle at 12.30pm, with a hospital statement a short time afterwards revealing “Mr O’Malley died from a heart attack”.
“Our tomorrows will be more empty without the genial Donogh,” wrote Gus Smith in The Limerick Leader. “Irish police life is so much poorer without his brisk personality, his lively intellectual mind, his mindfulness of the poor, his concern for his fellow man,” he added.
“As news of Mr O’Malley’s death spread,” said The Clare Champion, “people were inclined not to believe it but as it became established fact, the shock on the face of people was obvious.
“Tears were shed and the time was reminiscent of the death of President Kennedy. It was only when he was gone that the thought of what a great man he was dawned on us and also the privilege it was to have known him,” the Champion added.
“Donogh O’Malley died as he himself would, no doubt, have wished — in his tracks and with his name firmly established in the hearts of the Irish people by the revolution he had brought about in such a short space of time,” wrote Seamus Brady in The Irish Press.
“He was, in effect, the John F Kennedy of Ireland, for he had the same instinctive style about anything he did. Indeed, everything about O’Malley had style. He dressed impeccably, he it was who introduced the mohair suit to Irish politicians — and led it out of fashion again.
“In his wallet he always carried a treasured keepsake, a card on which Bean de Valera had written out for President Kennedy the words of the verse with the latter quoted before he left Shannon after his Irish visit — to see old Shannon’s face again’.
“Kennedy gave it to O’Malley as a parting gift. Now like Kennedy, Donogh O’Malley is gone at the height of his promise. Each had broken through to new frontiers for the nation they served. Generations of the Irish to come will remember this as the O’Malley time.”
Fifty years on, they do.


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